(By Reuben Abati)-I was very skeptical when the current leadership of Organized Labour in Nigeria objected to the decision of the Federal Government to withdraw fuel subsidy and hand over the pump price of petrol to the forces of demand and supply, also known as market forces.
Labour, represented by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), and their affiliates and privies in civil society, further threatened that they were opposed to the hike in electricity tariffs. They issued a statement in which they railed against neo-liberal policies, bad timing, and the insensitivity of government.
They made heavy weather out of the hardship that COVID-19 has imposed on the people and why any form of additional taxation that could pressurize the people would be utterly unacceptable. Deregulation of the downstream sector is not a new subject in Nigeria. Removal of fuel subsidy is an old subject in Nigeria.
In 2012, when the Jonathan administration announced a full deregulation of the downstream sector and removal of fuel subsidy, Organized Labour aligned with opposition politicians and turned the argument on its head.
In 2016, the party that succeeded the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), that is the All Progressives Congress (APC) and its leaders who had lied to Nigerians that there was no fuel subsidy in the country, promptly increased fuel prices. They argued that a fuel subsidy regime was not sustainable: the same argument that they opposed in 2012. The Organized Labour kept mute.
In 2020, with COVID-19 disrupting everything in the world including relationships, with Nigeria suffering a debt and revenue crisis, the collapse of fiscal buffers, and sheer adversity, the Federal Government announced the removal of fuel subsidy. Pump price jumped and Nigerians groaned but Federal Government argued that it was not left with any other option. Everyone expected that Organized Labour would intervene. But Labour didn’t quite do so. Groups in civil society had to picket the Abuja Headquarters of the Nigeria Labour Congress to protest that the NLC should speak up and call the people out on the streets, because life had become hard for the average Nigerian.
After being pushed, a combined team of the NLC and TUC finally announced that they would call out Labour on strike and shut down the country. They gave the Federal Government stringent conditions: a complete reversal of the hike in fuel price and electricity tariffs. Or else, Nigeria would be shut down indefinitely.
The biggest tragedy that has befallen Organized Labour in Nigeria is the thinking since 1999, that the leadership of Labour can be used as a stepping stone to a bigger role in Nigeria. Labour leaders use their positions to negotiate big benefits.
Under the military, there was a man called Paschal Bafyau who used the ladder of Labour leadership to gain prominence. With the return to democracy in 1999, the new Labour hero was Adams Oshiomhole.
He was a thorn in the flesh of the Obasanjo administration. He would soon make a leap from being Labour leader into partisan politics. He became Governor of Edo State for two terms and later National Chairman of All Progressives Congress.
Something tells me every Labour leader after Oshiomhole wants to be like him. The current Labour Movement in Nigeria led by Comrade Aliyu Wabba, is incompetent and hypocritical in its response to Labour issues in the country.
This new set of Labour leaders don’t care about the peoole.They are just as worse as the conservatives and fascists. The strike action that they promised on September 28 was never going to happen.
Three meetings were reportedly held – September 15, 24, 27, 2020. After the second meeting, Labour announced that it would go ahead with the nationwide strike because it had reached a deadlock with government. However, Nigerians were misled.
The document that emerged later says the Federal Government negotiators and Labour leaders agreed that, an ad-hoc technical committee would be set up to re-examine electricity tariff reforms. This committee will sit for two weeks effective September 28. During that period, “DISCOs have been directed to suspend the application of the cost-reflective Electricity Tariff adjustments.” There are technical questions.
In the first place, the current electricity tariffs are not cost-reflective, they are service-reflective. The new template by the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) creates a service-reflective template, problematic as it is, which ensures that houses, factories and businesses which consume more electricity within an A, B, C, D, range pay more than R1 band designated consumers at the lower end who still pay N4. 00 per unit, thus creating a cross-subsidy regime.
The proposed two-week suspension of electricity tariff is also in every sense ambiguous. The Federal Government team merely threw the two-week strategy at the unthinking Labour leaders just to buy time.
The Federal Government says it intends to review the NERC Act and involve Labour in the electricity value chain. This is meaningless. The Federal Government, States, and Local Governments own 40% of DISCOs. Government can take part of its 40% to the Stock Exchange, but what will be the value of whatever it expropriates? The leaders of Organized Labour could not see through that trick.
The other big issue was the deregulation of the downstream sector. Our Labour Leaders were told that the Federal Government will now fix Nigeria’s four petroleum refineries and that in fact the Port Harcourt refinery will be 50% completed by December 2021.
They were told there will be timelines for delivery and even the national leadership of NUPENG and PENGASSAN will be appointed into a Steering Committee. How many times have we been told that Nigeria’s refineries will be fixed?
Labour leaders were further told that the Federal Government will ensure the delivery of one million CNG/LPG Auto Gas conversion kits, storage skids and dispensing units by December 2021 under Nigeria’s Gas Expansion Programme. With the challenges of Corona Virus, this is not possible.
To even order the equipment and the accessories, or to build the plant, not less than 18 months will be required. Who is going to reshape the petrol stations? Many of the old vehicles on Nigerian roads cannot also be converted. And even if so, who will bear the cost? We are told the Federal Government will provide 133 CNG/LPG transit buses.
Nobody manufactures such buses in Nigeria. They will have to be imported. In other words, apart from taking care of the interest of Labour Leaders, the communique that ended the proposed strike of September 28, also very nicely, provided an opportunity for government officials to award contracts! There is also something in there about a 10% housing allocation for Nigerian workers. This is mere wishful thinking…
Organized Labour, having obviously embraced deregulation and market forces, should have raised other questions that could be helpful to Nigerians…Instead, they were discussing how Labour leaders can become members of Electricity Regulatory Commission.
Once upon a time, Labour used to be a strong voice in this country. In those days, government controlled everything: It was quite easy then to blackmail government, and use that as a platform to become a national figure. The times are changing, indeed the times have changed.
This piece, originally captioned How Organised Labour Deceived Nigerians was written by Dr.Reuben Abati.It was adapted and edited for use in this platform. From This Day Live, September 29, 2020.